Monday, December 29, 2014

The Joint Is Jumpin’

A recent Houston Chronicle article about barbecue joints explored the origin of the word joint as applied to an eating or drinking establishment. As the article pointed out, in addition to barbecue joints, we speak of “hamburger joints,” “beer joints,” and “pizza joints.” In this sense the word means a “restaurant or bar that is informal, simply decorated, and inexpensive.”

Originally, a joint was something not so savory. It is recorded in English slang in 1877 meaning a “place where persons meet for shady activities.” In the U. S., the first use of joint was recorded in Harper’s Magazine in 1883, meaning an “opium-smoking den.”

The etymology is thought to be based on the fact that these places for illicit activities—drugs, gambling, or liquor—were usually separate side rooms “joined” to a legal operation such as a restaurant or retail establishment. 

Joint took on a more general connotation of disrepute in the 1940s when juke joints were widespread in the United States, especially in the South. These were working-class African-American drinking and dancing clubs, noted for their rowdiness. Juke is derived from the word joog in Gullah, a Creole language in coastal South Carolina, Georgia and north Florida. It means “wicked and disorderly.” The music in these clubs gave rise to the term juke box.

The Oxford English Dictionary also cites joint as a late 19th-century term for outdoor bookmakers' booths that contained various gambling paraphernalia joined together in movable segments.

Eventually joint lost the connotation of “disreputable” and referred to any casual eating or drinking place. Today even upscale restaurants are sometimes referred to as “classy joints.”

A joint is similar to a dive, an American term for a “shabby and disreputable bar,” so-called because such places were usually in basements.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou avoids joints and dives with their stale air and dirty glasses. He prefers the refined elegance of his own home, where he can drink straight from the bottle.

            My joints are worn but they don’t creak yet,
            My plumbing’s old but doesn’t leak yet,
            My hair is thin and turning white,
            I cannot see things well at night.
            My heart needs help to keep its rhythm,
            My lungs, I’m sure, have things wrong with ‘em.
            My knees are getting very wobbly—
            I have a few years left, most prob’ly.
            But though I’m crumbling bit by bit,           
            I am not ready yet to quit.
            Instead, I think that I would rather
            Find all those rosebuds I should gather.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Elf Defense

Santa’s elves are busy this week, hammering together the last of the toys for good children, baking gingerbread men, and cleaning up after those notoriously messy reindeer, who always suffer digestive problems from too many goodies. We think of Santa’s elves as happy, cheerful, benevolent creatures, exuding good will and Christmas joy. Yeah, maybe. But lurking beneath that veneer of effervescent chirpiness is a wicked malevolence that is up to no good and longs to wreak unholy havoc. 

In Germanic folklore an elf was one of a race of powerful, supernatural beings  who typically did nasty things: made sexual threats against people, seduced both women and men, ruined crops, and caused nightmares, hiccups, and other physical and mental illnesses to people and livestock.

The word comes from Northumbrian ælf and West Saxon ylfe, meaning “sprite, fairy, goblin, or incubus.” Its further derivation is from Proto-Germanic albiz, Old Norse alfr, and the German alp, meaning “evil spirit or goblin.” Some linguists trace its origin to Proto-Indo-European albho, meaning “white”—perhaps alluding to ghosts or to illnesses that caused white skin.

By the Middle Ages elves were confused with fairies and became a little more benevolent. The Christmas elf showed up in the 19th century. In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas referred to Santa Claus himself as “a right jolly old elf.” In 1850 Louisa May Alcott wrote (but did not publish) a book called Christmas Elves. Godey’s Ladies Book had an image of elves in Santa’s workshop in 1873.

Today, the cherubic Elf on a Shelf is ubiquitous at Christmas time—but I’d be careful about turning my back on him if I were you.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows when he comes up against a better rhymester, and he grudgingly yields his usual place this week to the superior artistry of the late Morris Bishop, who wrote the quintessential paean to elves.

                        How To Treat Elves

                        I met an elf man in the woods,
                        The wee-est little elf!
                        Sitting under a mushroom tall—
                        'Twas taller than himself! 

                        "How do you do, little elf," I said,
                        "And what do you do all day?"
                        "I dance 'n fwolic about," said he,
                        "'N scuttle about and play;" 

                        "I s'prise the butterflies, 'n when
                         A katydid I see,
                        'Katy didn't' I say, and he
                        Says 'Katy did!' to me! 

                        "I hide behind my mushroom stalk
                        When Mister Mole comes froo,
                        'N only jus' to fwighten him
                        I jump out'n say 'Boo!' 

                        "'N then I swing on a cobweb swing
                        Up in the air so high,
                        'N the cwickets chirp to hear me sing

                        "'N then I play with the baby chicks,
                        I call them, chick chick chick!
                        'N what do you think of that?" said he.
                        I said, "It makes me sick. 

                        "It gives me sharp and shooting pains
                        To listen to such drool."
                        I lifted up my foot, and squashed
                        The god damn little fool.

                                                      From Spilt Milk, The Putnam Publishing Group, © copyright 1941, 1969 by Morris Bishop

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Dope on Dope

Doping has become a controversial topic in both professional and amateur sports. Cyclist Lance Armstrong, sprinter Ben Johnson, third baseman Alex Rodriguez, batting champ Barry Bonds, tennis whiz Andre Agassi, tiddlywinks ace Ladislav Paffufnikl—these are just a few of the myriad athletes who have taken various kinds of drugs that allegedly enhance their performance.

Admittedly, they may be dopes for doing so, but why are the drugs they take known as “dope”?

Most etymologists trace the word to the Dutch doop, “thick dipping sauce or gravy,” which stems from doopen (“to dip”). It entered English as dope around 1800.

By 1851 it meant a “stupid person. This meaning probably relates to the notion of “thick-headedness,” analogous to the thickness of the dipping gravy.

By 1889, dope was extended to mean a “thick, oozy opium concoction” given to racehorses to enhance their speed on the track. Thereafter the word was applied to any illicit narcotics or addictive drug.

As a word for “inside information,” this came around 1900, probably based on racing tips about which horses were “doped” to run faster.

A recent New York Times article cites a different etymology. It says the word derives from dop, a South African stimulant drink. In South Africa dop is also a word for an imprecise measure of any alcoholic drink, similar to a tot, a nip, a shot, or a slug. This meaning may have come from the same word, dop, which is a “copper cup in which diamonds are cut.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is proud to say he takes no artificial stimulants to enhance his poetic prowess, which comes perfectly naturally to him, but he is not averse to a tot, a nip, a shot, or a slug.

            Some athletes who took methamphetamine
            Thought that doping would be sure to get ‘em in
                       The hallowed Hall of Fame.
                       But when the time came,
           The powers that be wouldn’t let ‘em in.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Chinese Checkers

A recent news story reported the alarming news that the Chinese government has banned puns in radio, TV, and films. The rationale is that wordplay makes promoting cultural heritage more difficult and tends to mislead people, especially children. A recent directive decreed, “Radio and television authorities at all levels must tighten up their regulations and crack down on the irregular and inaccurate use of the Chinese language, especially the misuse of idioms.” Altering accepted patterns of speech risks “cultural and linguistic chaos,” the Word Nazis have decreed.

The director of Chinese Studies at Beijing Capital Normal University, whose name, curiously enough, is David Moser, says that wordplay is part and parcel of Chinese heritage. He points out, for example, the traditional wedding gift of dates and peanuts stems from the fact that the Chinese words for these foods—zao and huasheng—are homophones for the phrase Zaosheng guizi, which means “May you soon give birth to a son.”           

Moser faults whoever gave this order as “conservative, humorless, priggish, and arbitrarily purist.” He suspects the real reason behind the ruling is to prevent jokes about government officials, which often rely on puns for their humor. One recent example plays on the nicknames of President Xi Jinping and first lady Peng Liyuan to come up with the word for “marijuana.” In another political example Mao Zedong’s phrase “Serve the people” has been transformed into “Smog the people,” using two words that are homophones.

One rather naughty example of a political Chinese pun is the phrase “grass mud horse,” an anti-censorship symbol that has become a widely popular Internet meme. It is usually represented by an alpaca as the mascot for citizens fighting for free expression. In Mandarin Chinese the phrase “grass mud horse” sounds very much like the phrase “fuck your mother.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is an inveterate punster—everything he writes is inverse.
            The Chinese all run from a pun,
            So this question is one they must shun;
                         It’s a terrible quandary
                        Much too double-entendre-y:
            Who came out? The sun or the son?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Monkish Business

A television program on one of the higher-brow channels featured a day in the life of a cloistered Benedictine monastery. The day centered around the canonical hours—a set of prayers known as the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours—observed around the clock at intervals of three hours by extremely devout monks who apparently get by on brief snatches of sleep.

The practice began in the mid-6th century when St. Benedict of Nursia established an order of men dedicated to prayer and contemplation.

The daily prayers start at midnight with Matins, a word from the Latin matutinas vigilias (“morning watches”), derived from Matuta, the Roman goddess of dawn. Next comes Lauds, from the Latin laudare (“to praise”), at which Psalms of praise are sung. At 6:00 a.m. is Prime, so named from the Latin primus (“first”) because it is a prayer at the first hour of daylight. 

Terce, or sometimes Tierce, from the Latin tertius (“third”), is the third hour after Prime, followed at noon by Sext (from Latin sextus, “sixth”), which is the sixth hour (and under no circumstances should be confused with sext in the modern smart-phone sense). None (Latin nonus, “ninth”) is at 3:00 p.m.

At six o’clock in the evening, it’s time for Vespers, which comes from vesper, the Latin for “evening star,” derived from the Greek Hesperus (or Hesper), the personification of the evening star sometimes conflated with Venus.  (A Vesper is also a James Bond Martini, which made its appearance in Casino Royale and consists of 3 measures of Gordon’s gin, 1 measure of vodka, and a half-measure of Kina Lillet, shaken—not stirred—with ice, and garnished with a lemon peel. It is not traditionally served to the monks, who, after all, have their own tasty Benedictine liqueur.)
 Finally at 9:00 p.m. comes Compline, from Latin completus (“complete”), which ends the liturgical day.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, when given the chance, never fails to take part in Vespers, sometimes two.

            Liturgical Latin’s 
            Intoned for the Matins. 
            Each monk applauds 
            The hour of Lauds. 

            At six it is time 
            To kneel down for Prime. 

            Monks don’t converse 
            With heads bowed for Terce, 

            And they do not text 
            The prayers of Sext, 
            Nor do they phone 
            When they’re chanting None. 

            The first star of Hesper’s 
            Out for the Vespers, 

            At last, then, at nine, 
            No complaint—it’s Compline!